PONTIAC, Mich.—It's called rationalization, and at this, the Bears are terrific. They may, in fact, lead the league.
At this point, they say what they must, hear what they want, and after losing their last three games, do what they have to do. Abandoning the season is not an option, nor should it be.
But at 1-3 for the first time since 1983 and already three games behind division-leading Minnesota, the Bears' logic just doesn't cut it.
They must make plays, they say, as if it were as simple as buying new shoes. It's still just the little things, they insist. But these little things they keep talking about, these missed tackles and dropped passes and botched assignments and fumbles, aren't little at all.
Add them up and they explain 1-3 just as clearly as 35-16, the Bears' margin of defeat Sunday against the Detroit Lions.
Their opponents are not superior, the Bears claim. They simply make plays. And on this day, before 70,022 potential boo-birds at the Pontiac Silverdome, they made several plays. Scott Mitchell touchdown passes of 15, 2, 62 and 24 yards were the biggies. Throw in a 30-yard run by Barry Sanders and a 1-yard TD sneak by Mitchell, and well, maybe rationalizing makes as much sense as anything.
"We can't be worrying about what we've got to do eight weeks from now to be in the playoff race," said Bears coach Dave Wannstedt. "All we have to be concerned with now is how we can make some first downs and how can we stop the Raiders. That's going to be my approach (Monday). I told the team that, and we need to get better."
How, is the question. Injuries hurt, no pun intended. Neither Rashaan Salaam, playing for the first time this season, nor Robert Green were at full speed. Offensive linemen James "Big Cat" Williams and Todd Burger were also banged up. But Sunday's game wasn't just lost in the backfield, and it wasn't just lost on the offensive line. It was lost in the secondary and on the sideline. It was lost on a key fumble and on squandered momentum and a second half in which there was no life at all.
Wannstedt said his veteran players have to carry the young ones and the young ones have to improve. "These aren't excuses," he said, "they're the facts. And unfortunately, it's where our football team is at right now."
Erik Kramer, one of the veterans to whom he was surely referring, said he sees improvement. And in comparison with his three prior performances, this was true, as he passed for 261 yards. But considering Wannstedt's recent comment that if Kramer had to throw more than 40 passes, the Bears were in trouble, his 23-of-46 completion rate was troubling.
Encouraging was the play of Curtis Conway, who caught a 5-yard pass, utilized a nice block by rookie Bobby Engram and turned it into a 58-yard TD to close the Lions lead to 14-10.
Encouraging as well, was newly signed kicker Jeff Jaeger's only field-goal attempt, a 46-yarder, also in the second quarter, set up by rookie corner Walt Harris' first interception. But the second quarter was as good as it got for the Bears, and it wasn't good enough.
A strange series of events with the Lions leading 14-10 turned the momentum for good as the Bears failed on a third and 1 from the Lions' 27, and a fourth and 5 from the 31, passing up a 48-yard field goal attempt by Jaeger.
Michael Hicks, activated Friday from the scout team to shore up a depleted backfield, was hit for a 4-yard loss on a pitch from Kramer on the third down. Then Detroit's Pepper Johnson sacked Kramer on fourth down.
Both Green, who described himself as "maybe 60 percent," and Salaam, who recovered his own fumble two plays earlier, were on the sideline at the time. "I felt we had the momentum and that we could pick up the 4 yards (actually 5)," Wannstedt said. "And we were playing pretty good defense at the time. I felt we had them on the ropes."
Instead, the Lions scored on their next possession--a 62-yard hookup from Mitchell to Johnnie Morton, who took advantage of a prone Kevin Miniefield.
The Bears scored on their next possession, a 1-yard pass from Kramer to Jim Flanigan, lined up at the fullback position to make it 21-16 Lions, following a missed two-point conversion attempt. But they never got closer to the end zone than a fourth and 4 from the Lions' 26 in the third quarter. They came up short there when Engram was called for going out of bounds before making the reception for what would have been a first down.
Big plays made the difference, said Wannstedt over and again, but he would not buy that his team simply was not or is not good enough. "We have to get good enough and want to get good enough because our guys have a good attitude and will work as hard as we can possibly work to get better," he said.
In the meantime, they avoid the thought of being 1-3 and three games behind the Vikings. "If you focus in on that at this point, you're not going to do anything but get upset and frustrated," Miniefield said. "If you think about wins and losses and our situation right now, that's too much baggage to carry."
And so, nearly to a man, the Bears turn inward and tune out, allowing only a flicker of reality to filter in. "It's a tough position," Flanigan conceded. "Nobody ever imagined this, especially after the preseason when things went pretty well. Maybe it's a wakeup call for us that we have to get things going in the right direction."
Not maybe. "You lose three games in a row," said Williams, "and three games that nobody thought you would lose, including yourself, and it's hard to brush off. Now it's all about going out and doing something about it. . . . We're killing ourselves slowly but surely."